Think Bomb

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Facts, Theory, and Bunk



I know a lot of scientists and science majors read this blog so I don’t often write about some of the more basic aspects of science. One of my goals though is to make this blog fun and understandable even for the unscientific crowd. So today, I thought I’d talk a little bit about science itself and how it’s done.

Right now I am a teaching assistant in the biology 102—“Biology and Society” for non-science majors. For me, the lectures are a welcome break between biological chemistry and organic chemistry on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. For many the students, it will be their only venture into the scientific realm during their college career.

Margaret Ricci, the instructor for the course, is personable and fun and presents science in a way that’s entertaining and understandable for all listeners. She remembers to take things from the viewpoint of a non-science major, something many of us scientists forget how to do!

Today she went over some of the most basic concepts in science—facts, theory, and bunk. She started the lecture off with a real skeptics view saying that facts are, to a degree, overrated. Everything in science is built brick by brick, through careful observation and experimentation. Each fact is like a brick, but this building has no pan and often bricks must be reexamined and re-laid.

“That’s why they call it research,” says Margaret, “because you have to go it again and again and again.”
(“Also know as job security for us scientists,” she jests.)

As the bricks, facts are a little cheaper, but theories are the foundation onto which whole new towers can be built. We’re not talking about the kind of theories you have at four in the mornin’ after a few margaritas, she emphasized. That is the colloquial meaning of theory. In a scientific community, the theory must be solid before more bricks are laid. That means a great number of observations are tied together by the theory, it makes predictions that can be tested, and it is supported by accumulated evidence. A theory is not easily toppled, but it does happen. Earth quakes and shakes are no stranger to science!

One of the most important elements she hit on today was credibility. Before something can make it to the fact phase of becoming a “brick,” it’s got to go through the “factory.” The outcome of an experiment must be measurable. I had some trouble with this one in my last experiment because although certainly relevant, opsin scoring is not quantitative or linear. Many professors who heard my talk on opsin expression we acing for a good, linear graph of the outcome, something I could not provide!

In addition to a measurable outcome, the experiment needs “replication,” a large “n.” This means multiples runs or a large population of subjects. An experiment also needs controls, a group that is comparable to the experimental group. Ideally there is only one variable being tested: randomization, placeboes, and blind experimentation help reduce the chances of interference by confounding variables. A critical thinker needs to ask: “is this relevant to what could really be happening?” For example, when performing an experiment in vitro (test tube work), a lot of questions arise about whether this is relevant to what could actually be happening in the tissues of a living organism where so many inter and intra cellular mechanisms are at play. Consider last Wednesday’s article no bipolar disorder and depression (Yes, even my articles must be taken with a grain of salt!). Researchers found that lithium in vitro affected certain cellular clock components. Is this how it works in the living organism? Possibly.

Finally the experiment must be replicatable by others and proven multiple times. This brings up another item to consider about last weeks article and, as Margaret pointed out, pretty much ALL newsworthy articles, is that they’re usually preliminary studies. I took my story straight from the newest research, but there have not yet been follow-up studies. Will the clock version of how lithium works to stop bipolar disorder be disproven? We don’t know, and we may never know, because by then many would no longer consider the subject news!

In any case, I am glad to be a part of a class that teaches non-science majors one of the most important aspects of science: critical thinking and a skeptic eye!

Image source: (confused man) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/

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